Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Back to France...

A few months ago I went out to the refugee "camp" in Dunkirk. Originally planning to do medical/first aid, as soon as we arrived we realised that even the basic needs of the people living there weren't being met - forget medical help, they needed dry clothes, shoes that fitted and food to eat... I've never been very political, I'm definitely not an activist, but that trip was life-changing and eye-opening (the full account is here) and as soon as I could get the time off and another group of us together, a second trip was planned.

I'll post some background details, some useful things I learnt about collecting donations and fundraising and what we did out there in case anyone reading this wants to help and get involved.



There used to be a field in a suburb of Dunkirk. It became an unofficial camp for refugees - nearly all Kurdish from Iraq/Iran/Syria - and turned into a horrific quagmire of mud and sewage. MSF along with other charities, volunteers and the mayor of Grand Synthe (the suburb of Dunkirk) built a new camp about 15 minutes away. Not ideal as it is further from shops and bordered by a dual carriageway and railway track, it does have lots of wooden shelters (to replace the tents and tarpaulins being previously used) and more importantly has no mud. There is some form of food available daily, including a "free shop" where each hut can collect a small bag of potatoes/onions/flour/salt/lentils/chickpeas etc (depending on availability) and regular distributions of clothes etc when the warehouse have any. There were even plans to build big communal cooking areas but I'm not sure what's happening now with the latest news...

Was going to be a communal cooking/eating area - future uncertain now


We focused on what was desperately needed including tracksuit bottoms, hoodies, socks, trainers and sleeping bags. I posted on some local facebook groups and had an amazing response. Local mums who read about our trip did clothes drives at schools, a heavily pregnant friend collected donations from half her county, a member of a local PTA donated loads of secondhand school tracksuits etc. We even managed to take out 50 extra bin bags of clothes/shoes thanks to some totally fabulous school kids doing a massive collection and with the help of a local mum who persuaded her husband to drive their large van down! People can be amazing. 

Our bedroom floor!
Amazing collection done by a school in East London - wow!
We only just fitted in the car :)
If you are doing a collection I would definitely say make sure you are really picky though. Having some prior experience I was very specific about what was needed. Some people were brilliant and just donated what we had asked for. However others viewed it as an excuse to just donate any old rubbish they had lying around!! But we tried not to waste anything and whatever wasn't suitable for us to take to France I found other uses for - we took 3 bin liners of clothes/shoes to the local charity shop, gave 2 bin liners to the local women's refuge and have 4 bags waiting to join a container going to Greece.

My favourite note  - I found it pinned onto some donated leggings. So much politeness from donors in Oxfordshire!
We also set up a fundraising page and raised an amazing £1500. We spent some before we left (eg we bought 2 boxes of supplies for the school and 3 big bags of supplies for the camp kitchen) but took the majority of it with us to spend over there. A full breakdown of where the money went is at the end of this post. Thank you so much to all our amazing donors!

A lot of torches!

Our trip

To be honest I wasn't sure what to expect. The previous camp had been awful for so many reasons but I kept hearing that the new camp felt soulless, no one was happy, it was hard for volunteers to help even though they were still needed etc etc. So I did have some trepidation, especially as I was the only one of the original group returning so everyone expected me to be the expert!

Yes the camp did feel different but that's not necessarily bad. There is a lot more privacy for the refugees now which I think is good. The children can actually run and play and ride bikes. There are showers and loos with running (hot!) water. There is a place for adults to learn English and French. There is a laundry so dirty clothes do not need to just be discarded. And there 2 schools - one for younger children, a safe place where they can play and actually be their age, and one for older children which teaches English, maths etc and tries to plug in some tiny way the massive gaping education hole left in all these displaced children's lives. And there is NO mud!

Lots of open space to play in
So what did we do out there? Here's a brief summary of each day just to give an idea of the varied ways in which anyone can help:

Day 1:

We arrived at lunchtime and went straight to the warehouse to drop off all the clothes/shoes we'd brought. We then volunteered to stay and help there for the afternoon as they were (are always!) desperate for more hands to help sort through all the donations. We spent the next few hours unpacking and sorting, and it was really interesting for us to see the whole pathway for donations - from initial warehouse drop-off to distributing on the camps.


And after 5 hours hard work we managed to find a nearby beach to make sand angels on and then had some last minute practice on making balloon animals for the kids the next day :)

Day 2:

Our first day in the camp. I was so glad the mud has gone and it was so nice to see children able to run around and play outside rather than being knee-deep in filth. We were on "general duty" in the morning which can involve anything from picking up rubbish, to chopping vegetables to directing traffic.

Flowers outside one of the huts - each  small "house" was so well-cared for

In the afternoon we did a mammoth shopping trip (thanks to all the money donations) and bought enough food for 450 (one for every tent and hut in the camp) food parcels, containing fresh fruit and snacks. It's hard to imagine just how many 450 pieces of fruit equates to but we filled 7 shopping trolleys full to the brim... I was definitely not amused when the supermarket cashier wanted to scan *every* single item!! But after several hours of a super-efficient production line (sitting in the supermarket car park next to our car!) all parcels were made and ready to be distributed the next day.

We also delivered 2 bags of new cooking utensils, 10kg of spices, 4kg of salt, and a lot of tuna/chickpeas/tomatoes to the camp kitchen.

I found this day pretty poignant. The camp was so different to the previous one, so many positive ways but it did feel slightly disconnected in a way that is hard to explain. But the people living here are so ingenious. We saw makeshift swings using plastic boxes, slides wedged up on fences and people managing to cook meals for whole families on tiny stoves. Imagine trying to move your whole life into a tiny wooden hut. And then imagine you're sharing it with 5 other people from your family. Crazy.

My personal highlights included:
- sharing breakfast with a family who were making delicious homemade Kurdish bread over a campfire
- seeing the kids' excited faces when they hid under their coats to see their new glowsticks light up in the dark
- Hatel becoming a mini-celeb and being asked to sing Hindi songs
- how Reena's umbrella made the day for a mum living in the camp with 2 special needs kids
Our fresh bread after being on rubbish duty

Day 3:

In the morning we helped in the Maktab (school). We'd brought some supplies over with us so we could set up some new activities for them and had fun bubble wrap painting and making pompom pictures. We gave our outdoor chalk to the kids so they could decorate the new flowertubs and had some lego models for the older children as they don't have much suitable for their age range in the school (or camp!). 


At lunch we had a quick shopping trip to buy 30 bottles of shampoo/conditioner for the women's distribution container, as they had completely run out, as many watermelons as we could find (a request from the camp kitchen) and some fruit pouches so the kids could have a healthy treat during school “break”. 

Then we manned the "free shop" for the afternoon. Here the residents can come and collect food each day so they can have more independence and cook for themselves rather than just relying on cooked food handouts. What they can get depends on availability (based on what the camp has supplies of at that moment) but on the day we were there included: rice, sugar, salt, chickpeas, tomatoes, flour, mackerel, potatoes, onions and bread. We also gave out our food parcels to everyone - there is so little fresh fruit available that it was lovely seeing how pleased people were with them, and the biscuits and chocolate were very much appreciated! 

Then it was time for final goodbyes to the families we'd got to know over the last 48 hours and back to the UK. It's always mixed emotions when it's time to go. The time out there never feels long enough and there's always so much more to be done. You get so involved in camp life that it is always strange coming home, as well as the guilt you feel about how easily we can travel around/cross borders/have a safe place to live. But we all have families back here too and so the most important thing is striking some kind of balance - doing what you can.


The final tally of what we managed to squeeze into our car (which luckily was a bit like Mary Poppin's bag...):
- 12 sleeping bags
- over 150 tracksuit bottoms
- 50 pairs leggings
- 60 warm coats
- over 80 hoodies/jumpers
- 50 pairs of socks
- loads of gloves
- 80 pairs of trainers

Fit to bursting...

All the money donated helped us buy:
-          enough food to make 450 individual food parcels, each containing fresh fruit (apple, orange, lemon and banana), a chocolate bar and packet of biscuits
-          11 giant watermelons (fresh fruit is a massive luxury)
-          a big box of supplies for the kitchen (including 1000 plastic spoons, 250 bowls, tin openers/spatulas/cooking spoons, over 10kg of spices and a lot of tuna, tomatoes and chickpeas!)
-          over 100 healthy snack fruit packs for children and 30 bottles of shampoo/conditioner for the women in the camp
-          a selection of first aid supplies including 13 individual first aid packs and a massive box of strepsils/cough syrup/tissue packs
-          a box of “miscellaneous” items including 56 torches (sooo popular!), nearly 1000 batteries (in packs of 10) and 20 “stick on” lights for inside the shelters
-          loads of stuff for the kids play area/school, including lego for the older kids, outdoor chalk and paints, loads of glow sticks and modelling balloons and 100 tubes of bubbles
-          clothes desperately needed including tracksuit bottoms, women’s leggings and socks

We also gave £100 to a volunteer in the camp who has been there for the last 3 months and buys things the refugees really need but don’t have access to (eg incontinence pads), £100 to buy emergency food for the several hundred refugees who were living out in the open under a subway bridge in Paris and £200 to the camp kitchen who cook for 1-2000 people every day. And a bit further afield we gave £100 to a grassroots organisation in Idomeni and a further £100 to a similar organisation on the ground in the Turkish refugee areas.


I recently saw this quote by Audrey Hepburn which I totally love - "As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others".

Last week I read a report saying the French government have now taken the camp over and are planning to close it down soon,destroying wooden huts every day. I don't know if that's definitely true but I suspect it is. But even if this camp gets destroyed the residents will still be out there somewhere. And there are hundreds of others in even worse conditions. On the Serbia-Hungary border. On the Greek-Macedonia border. All over Greece. In Turkey. And also further from us - in Jordan, Lebanon and still in Syria.

If you'd like to help somehow there are a million ways you can - raising money, collecting clothes, physically being there, signing petitions, spreading awareness etc. In the same way that a snowflake can start an avalanche, the smallest gesture can still be the most meaningful so don't think you have to "go big", just do what you feel you can.

The new camp, already under threat